If you’re bewildered about Windows 8 and Microsoft’s upcoming tablets, you’re in great company.
There’s mass confusion over Windows 8, Windows RT and which OS runs—and doesn’t run—what applications. After I typed the term “Windows 8 confusion” (in quotes) into Google, the search engine found more than 5,000 results. By comparison, I found only 10 results for “Mac OS confusion.” Not scientific research, I realize. But still, it paints a picture.
Why the confusion? Windows 8 will be available for tablets, tablet/laptop convertibles, traditional laptops and desktops, and laptops and desktops with touchscreens. There is Windows 8 and its versions (such as Pro), and then there is Windows RT.
Choice is usually great for consumers. But Windows 8 raises new questions that consumers didn’t really have to ask before, such as what Windows 8 on a tablet does and doesn’t do compared to Windows RT on a tablet. And Microsoft’s website doesn’t really help consumers figure out how to answer their questions. Some Microsoft Store reps don’t even understand the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT, according to The Verge.
So here, in a nutshell, are three things tablet buyers need to know about Windows 8, Windows RT and Microsoft tablet apps.
1. Windows 8 is Microsoft’s update to Windows 7 with a brand-new, touchscreen-enabled look and feel modeled after the Windows Phone dynamic-tile-based interface. Windows 8 runs the countless Windows 7 and Vista desktop applications already in existence, as well as software developed specifically for Windows 8. Windows 8 also runs on a variety of devices, including compatible tablets, convertibles and touchscreen-enabled PCs.
2. Windows RT is a separate operating system, though it too has a Windows Phone inspired dynamic-tile-based Start screen. Windows RT comes preinstalled on devices with ARM processors, most notably tablets. Think of Windows RT in the same category as Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Windows RT runs mobile device apps, which you’ll be able to purchase from the Windows Store.
3. Windows RT will have native Microsoft Office apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. You’ll also get Internet Explorer—but no Outlook. That’s because Microsoft considers Outlook a business app, and the company is by default licensing the Office apps with Windows RT as home/student versions only. Those Office editions are “not for use in commercial, nonprofit or revenue generation activities,” according to a footnote on Microsoft’s Surface with Windows RT store page. In fact, you can’t use Windows RT with a Windows Active Directory subdomain.
Ultimately, the choice boils down like this:
* If you want a low-cost tablet (starting around $500) that runs tablet apps but also has full student/home versions of Office but not Outlook, a Windows RT tablet is your choice. It’s in essence a BYOD choice, like an iPad. Corporate types who, among other things, live in Outlook and sync it with Exchange servers will not be pleased, apparently, with a Windows RT tablet. (UPDATE: A reader noted, correctly, in the comments below that you’ll still be able to sync with Exchange; you just can’t do it with Outlook.)
* If you need a professional-grade tablet capable of running any of your Windows desktop apps plus the Windows RT mobile apps, then a Windows 8-compatible tablet—which will cost you more—is probably the way to go.
James A. Martin is a seasoned tech journalist and blogger based in San Francisco and winner of the 2014 ASBPE National Gold award for his CIO.com blog. He writes CIO.com's Living the Tech Life blog and is also a content marketing consultant.